Schools: The Baby and the Bathwater

dill teacher IIEvidence presented in a range of studies in Australia and overseas on school effectiveness indicates that the prime creative force in education is the principal, and that her or his leadership behaviour is a major factor in the school’s climate and the welfare of students. The best leaders place an emphasis on appreciation of achievement and task accomplishment while also providing social-needs satisfaction. They are regarded by their staffs as genuine; their authenticity is of pivotal importance for staff motivation. This quality of leadership is best scrutinised and assessed in executive staff at first hand in the school setting.

For more than a century the Department of Education in New South Wales—one of the largest education systems in the world—employed inspectors to assess teachers and to ensure the proper conduct of schools. With the abolition of the inspectorial system we lost the most vital and effective means of identifying teachers for promotion to positions of school leadership.

This essay appeared in the June, 2018, edition of Quadrant.
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In 1866 Sir Henry Parkes passed into legislation a proposal by William Wilkins, Secretary to the Board of National Education, that a co-ordinated system of state schools supervised by professional inspectors should be established. In Parkes’s Public Instruction Act of 1880 further reliance was placed on inspectors for information covering a great variety of topics connected with schools and teachers.

A great strength was that inspectors’ objectivity, fairness and consistent judgment using stated criteria were recognised across the system. This was because they had considerable professional freedom and independence from political influence, vested interests and teachers. They had an obligation to report as they found without fear or favour.

A teacher was not eligible for promotion to a more senior position until her or his name had been placed on a promotion list. When a teacher was being assessed for the Fourth Promotion List for appointment as principal of a school, a panel of up to four inspectors spent a week in the teacher’s school forming a judgment concerning the teacher’s professional skill, managerial ability, the effectiveness of the teacher’s leadership and supervision and any further matters the inspectors deemed relevant. The inspectors also had available the advice of the school principal. Judgments were best made when all of the available evidence was considered.

Nevertheless, a need for change became apparent. Promotion lists were growing liberally and the provision, established by William Wilkins, that the relative seniority of a teacher on a promotion list determined their precedence for promotion caused many teachers to believe that they were unlikely ever to secure suitable positions.

In 1986 Bob Winder, the Director-General of Education, proposed promotion to positions of principal on the basis of comparative assessment of merit between those already judged worthy through their assessment and placement on the relevant list. In 1987 the Minister for Education legislated the change, enabling principals to be chosen on the basis of a rigorous selection process combining inspection, written application and interview. On the preservation of desirable features, the minister said he did not wish to change a system of thorough on-the-job assessment of teachers by inspection.

Then in 1988 the Greiner government came to power and brought about a great structural and financial change to the education system. Terry Metherell, the Minister for Education, established two reviews of the Department of School Education. The Management Review, under the direction of Dr Brian Scott, contained 370 recommendations; in broad terms it devolved staffing, finances and resources to principals and schools and abolished the inspectorate. Key recommendations of the review were included in the Education Reform Bill of 1990. From the beginning of 1990, teacher assessment by Inspectors of Schools for the purposes of placement on promotion lists no longer took place.

Some improvements were made to the system. Applicants for executive or principal positions must now address six general selection criteria and the specific selection criteria for the position in their application. Selection panel members use applications and referee comments, including a current principal’s comments, to shortlist applicants for interview.

However, in the selection of principals on merit, weaknesses in leadership and teaching practice may now be easily shrouded. Moreover, a principal’s comments on a teacher seeking promotion do not necessarily, for various reasons, draw attention to the teacher’s deficiencies. In the inspectorial system, a teacher’s weaknesses were more readily identified and rectified before promotion to the next level was recommended.

Today, because of diverse expectations of community members, parents, students and teachers and because of a variety of economic, social and political factors, along with ever more rapid technological change, schools are subjected to growing and conflicting pressures. Governments are devolving increasing tasks and responsibilities to principals, who are being freed to administer their educational province as they think fit. It is little wonder that a demonstrably higher proportion of principals and teachers is suffering from work-related stress.

In these conditions it is essential for the well-being of students and teachers that the school system selects for positions of leadership and responsibility those who are truly outstanding. A reliance on references and interviews tends to weaken the validity of the enterprise. The inspectorial system in New South Wales with its emphasis on impartial evaluation was a great strength. With its abolition we lost a thorough, balanced assessment of candidates for the position of principal by a visiting experienced panel of wise professional people.

We have substituted the shadow for the substance; the casket for the gem. We have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Ross Twigg was a high school principal in New South Wales for fifteen years.


2 thoughts on “Schools: The Baby and the Bathwater

  • Jody says:

    As a retired high-school teacher I can tell you the single greatest weakness in schools is the Principal. Everybody below a weak Principal is easily corrupted, one way or another. After all, he or she is part of the unionized workforce and doesn’t want to rise about the other workers by actually exerting some kind of control. It’s preposterous.

  • says:

    I think Escalante would be one of the most famous teachers, but it turns out Gardillas was the principal of the school and not much would have happened without either of them, as the latter’s book suggests (generalizing the claim for ANY school principal).
    Makes an interesting reading I must admit. Also the ending: Escalante was chased out of the school by other teachers, as it happens with envy or “why bother” when you have unions and thus a secure job.
    I learned that US had (still have?) school inspectors. This could be good or bad, like with any bureaucracy.

    Regarding curriculum, I think leaving it to individual schools (parents, teachers, school boards, principals) would protect the schools more from anti-Western indoctrination, even if such curriculum is designed by an honest person – next gov may change all that, let’s let the schools compete for clients, issue school vouchers and leave it to the market.

    Ridiculous that every adult is voting in elections but is considered not well enough informed about the best schooling for ONE’s kid(s).

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